I’m writing this as much for me as for other writers. Because, no, I haven’t written for a while. Anyone who regularly visits this blog or the blog on my book website–that website is here–knows that I haven’t posted for several weeks. First there was a large editorial project that ate up all my time from mid-November into early December; and then another project in December that I finished just before my daughter came home from college for the holidays. And then the holidays, which in my extended family is an extended celebration. With my house empty of children again, it is time to face it: I haven’t written for a while and I really need to get back in the saddle.
Probably like most writers, I have had many of these “I haven’t written for a while” moments. Sometimes they happen because I have finished a book and need to take some time off, rest and rejuvenate. Other times I simply have too much editorial work filling my days and draining me of creative energy. Sometimes I’m stuck with whatever I’m working on, uncertain where to go with it. And finally, I will avoid writing if I’ve grown to dislike what I’m writing, or if it feels like I’m digging too deeply into my psyche, or because I’m certain that no one is ever, ever, going to want to read what I write.
Depending on why I haven’t written for a while, I’ll take different approaches to ease back into it, and these are the various approaches I recommend to my clients and students.
If it’s only been a pause due to editorial work, I make sure I take a break before I start a new work project so I can devote extra time to my writing. It’s partly to make up for the time lost, but more importantly, I need to reintroduce myself to whatever I’m working on. It can take a few writing sessions before I’m back in the groove of my book, sliding into the narrative style I’ve been using and remembering plot twists and insights into characters that I figured out the last time I wrote. Once I start working again, I do my best to keep a balance between the editing and the writing—until the next big project or tight deadline comes along, and the writing has to be put on a back burner once more.
If the problem is because I’m stuck or feel that my narrative has gone awry, I don’t go back to where I stopped. Instead, I’ll jump ahead to a scene that I know is going to happen and that I’m eager to write. Or I’ll write a scene that will never be in the book but helps to clarify for me an aspect of a character or a pivotal event, something that I haven’t worked out yet. Either of these ploys will often reinvigorate me, and show me a solution to whatever stymied me.
If the problem is more psychological, a resistance to what I’m writing or, more fundamentally, why I’m writing—maybe I’ve convinced myself it’s worthless and no one will care—that requires an honest evaluation of the work in progress. Have I gone down a wrong path with the story that is leading to a dead end, and I need to back up and take a different turn? Or is there a basic flaw in the story, or even in the main character, that cannot be fixed without drastic changes? If that’s the case, will those drastic changes destroy what excited me about the story or the characters in the first place? Does my protagonist have enough depth, enough darkness and brightness, that she can carry the burden of a whole novel without the reader getting bored with her or seeing her as only one dimensional? Am I relying on clichés and tired plot conventions?
Facing all of these questions can be difficult, but I don’t know a novelist who doesn’t have unfinished books in her attic or computer memory. A story or a character may initially captivate us, yet as we write we discover the plot has only enough complexity to suit a short story, not a novel (and therefore perhaps can become a terrific short story); or the protagonist reveals herself to be a collection of quirks without much substance.
On the other hand, a thorough evaluation of a troubled, partially written novel can remind me of what excited me about the story in the first place, and I have simply drifted away from it. I might have to toss the last fifty pages I wrote to get back to the good stuff, but as I always tell my students: Nothing you write is ever a waste. You may never use that material, but now you know what isn’t going to work. And sometimes, there is a nugget of an idea for a different book in those pages. So don’t literally toss them. Put them in a drawer, or a folder in Word called Future Ideas, and when you’re ready to start a new book, take a second look at them. You might be able to dive right in.
If you’ve had a long gap of time when you haven’t been able to write, or haven’t wanted to write, consider what’s going on. What can you do to get yourself back into the daily habit of writing? What will excite you again about what you’re working on? How about some writing prompts? You can find some here on my website. Whatever works for you, get back to your writing and keep at it.